DIVA TALK: Chatting with Spamalot's Merle Dandridge Plus Betty Buckley at Birdland

News   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Spamalot's Merle Dandridge Plus Betty Buckley at Birdland News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Merle Dandridge
Merle Dandridge Photo by Cindy Johnson

MERLE DANDRIDGE
The Broadway production of the 2005 Tony Award winner for Best Musical, Monty Python's Spamalot, has a new Lady of the Lake: Merle Dandridge, who recently stepped into the role that was originated to Tony-winning effect by "Grey's Anatomy" star Sara Ramirez. The select few who have also played the comical and vocally challenging role include British actress Hannah Waddingham, Vanities star Lauren Kennedy and, most recently, three-time Tony nominee Marin Mazzie. Dandridge, who created the role of Kala in the short-lived Disney musical Tarzan and has also been seen on Broadway in Jesus Christ Superstar, Aida and Rent, is currently scheduled to stay with the acclaimed musical at the Shubert Theatre through March 2009. I recently chatted with the gifted performer, who spoke about her current role, her work on stage and screen and her Rent memories; that interview follows.

Question: How did the role of Lady of the Lake come about for you?
Merle Dandridge: Actually, I had auditioned way back, I believe, in 2005. I don't know where they were at in the process, but I had gotten down to the wire about it, and Tarzan came about at the same time, so I had the choice to originate [a role]. . . . They were very interested, so we just stayed in touch all these years, and finally it's coming to fruition, which is exciting!

Question: Are you enjoying playing the role?
Dandridge: Are you kidding me? I'm having a blast! . . . It's so much fun. I get to be a stupid as I want to be, and it's celebrated. [Laughs.]

Question: I know sometimes when you replace, you don't often get that much rehearsal time. What was the rehearsal process like for Spamalot?
Dandridge: I had two weeks of rehearsal, which I think is pretty standard these days. It was fun — I have to say, it was probably the most fun I've had in rehearsal.

Merle Dandridge in Spamalot
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: Who guided you through rehearsal?
Dandridge: Scott Taylor and then, of course, B.T. [McNicholl], the directing associate, and then Mike [Nichols] put his stamp of approval on me at my put-in. Question: So, Nichols is still involved with the production?
Dandridge: He's very involved. I see him a lot. He's been very generous to me and very encouraging, so it makes me feel better about what I'm doing.

Question: Did he have any comments that were especially useful?
Dandridge: He didn't have that much to say, except that I was doing exactly what he wanted — that everything I was doing was coming from a truthful place and that my range of vocal ability was exactly what he wanted. He said to just keep playing.

Question: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for your character?
Dandridge: All of them! But "Camelot" is especially fun. I feel like a 12-year-old dancing in front of the mirror. It's true playtime. So, I like to change it up every show to keep it interesting.

Question: Why do you think the show has been such a crowd favorite?
Dandridge: Monty Python has such a huge following...myself included. I fell in love with the show when I first saw it. It's fast, it's smart and the work is genuinely good.

Question: I know that Clay Aiken recently returned to the cast. Have you noticed a difference in audience reaction?
Dandridge: It's a huge difference! It's very funny because the center of action can be happening on one side of the stage, but you'll see a sea of heads looking in the opposite direction. [Laughs.] They're very excited to have him back. He's such a sweet, sweet person and obviously so talented. We're really lucky to have him.

Question: Since we haven't spoken before, I want to go back a bit. Where were you born and raised?
Dandridge: I was born in Japan, and then we went to Korea, and I was raised in Nebraska.

Question: When did you start performing?
Dandridge: When I was trying to figure out what my elective was going to be [in high school], a friend who was a year older than me said, "Take drama, it's easy." . . . All the kids who were in the drama department, all the cool drama kids, were going to the International Thespian Festival, so I went one summer with my best friend and got a full ride to school. So it kind of fell on me. Then I went to school in Chicago [Roosevelt College] and just started studying it. [Laughs.]

Question: So it was at that time when you really started…
Dandridge: I figured, if somebody was going to invest in me, I had better invest in myself. I worked really hard in college, and I came out a completely different person and performer than when I went in. I did the work, and I found a craft.

Question: Did you always sing, or was that something that came later?
Dandridge: I did sing in choir, but I wasn't really "the one." . . . It was all a later development.

Question: When do you think you knew that performing would be your career?
Dandridge: I remember one day in my sophomore year, a bunch of my friends pushed me to skip Theatre History and go to a Miss Saigon open call. All the other girls were so much more talented than me, had so much more experience, and they dragged me. I remember meeting [casting director] Vinnie Liff, and he was so encouraging and so excited about what I did. I went so far in that process that I thought, "Oh my goodness, somebody from New York City thinks I have the ability!" That was kind of my first inkling that maybe this might be something. I think it was maybe the next year that [casting director] Bernie Telsey came to Chicago with the first open call of Rent. I think, out of 800 people, he brought four of us out to New York, and that was my first time seeing a Broadway show. Bernie was kind of the catalyst to really get me here.

Merle Dandridge (top left) in Rent
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: Do you remember what your thoughts were the first time seeing a show in New York?
Dandridge: It completely knocked me over. It hit me in a place that I didn't know I could be touched so deeply. I also didn't previously feel like I had a real outlet to express who I am or what's stirring inside. So when I locked in with that and saw the manifestation of all those little bits of myself that I don't think that I had ever touched into — on a huge stage like that in a piece that talked about my generation — it was clearly life-changing. Question: Was Rent also the first Broadway show that you were in?
Dandridge: No, that was Jesus Christ Superstar in 2000. I think Rent was my third Broadway show.

Question: Do you remember your first night on a Broadway stage in Jesus Christ Superstar?
Dandridge: Oh, my God. I remember Paul Kandel telling me when we were in the rehearsal room — he was our King Herod, and he said, "I don't want you to let this moment pass you by. Remember that first time you walk through the stage door. Remember the first time you step on that Broadway stage. Take it in. Take a picture in your head." That was a great piece of advice because it was thrilling. When it was the Ford Center, walking through those doors for the first time and feeling this sense of privilege, of "I have arrived." I was understudying Mary Magdalene, and I vividly remember the first time I went on as a leading role. I remember standing center stage during "I Don't Know How to Love Him" in a beautiful, long red dress, just feeling so naturally myself, my arms opened wide and just — I don't even know how to describe it — sharing myself fully with the people who were there.

Question: When you finally got into the cast of Rent, was that a surreal experience, since it was the first show you had seen?
Dandridge: Now that it's been six years since I first went into Rent, and I have come and gone probably five times in that show… so much of my professional life and so much of my professional family was in the Nederlander [Theatre]. But joining that cast for the first time, I was like, "Finally, this is what I wanted. This is it!" [Laughs.] To have such great friendships with the people who created it and were a part of it from the genesis and to know [late Rent creator Jonathan Larson's father] Al Larson as I do now, and to have such a great friendship with [director] Michael Greif, it feels like I've come full circle.

Question: What were your thoughts about the show finally ending its run a few weeks ago?
Dandridge: Oh gosh. Well, you know, I went to go see the Rent movie screening last night.

Question: How was that?
Dandridge: It's tremendous. I felt like it captured every feeling that I've ever had on that stage. Kudos to the filmmakers because they really got it. They got what it was about, and they captured everything and even took it a step further. We're all so happy because it's a celebration of everything that our whole family [experienced] — thousands of people have played these roles in the past 12 years. I think this piece really captured it, so I'm so excited about that... I wasn't able to go to the actual show because I had a show, but I went to the party. It was extremely overwhelming. You couldn't even take it in. You saw the faces of so many people who have meant so much to you and who you've shared so much of your life with in such a small amount of time, all going through the same kind of thing. The legacy won't die, but the immediacy of having a building to go to see each other — our home is going away.

Shuler Hensley with Merle Dandridge in Tarzan

Question: You mentioned Tarzan a bit. I was wondering what that experience was like for you. Being in a show like Spamalot, which has been so embraced by critics, versus Tarzan, which struggled.
Dandridge: I was excited to get on board with Disney because I had worked with them in Aida, and I loved them. They are very much another family of mine. The rehearsal process was intense, and we worked our tails off. Now that I look back at five months of rehearsal and being down at Steiner and swinging through the air and jumping on balloon castles and doing our capoeira and our yoga and our boot camp everyday, it was amazing and we had an amazing group of people. They were pushing the envelope . . . I think we were trying to do things that hadn't been accomplished before. It was quite difficult, but we had such a heart for the piece, and we had such a heart for the story and Phil [Collins'] music, it can't not touch you. He's so amazing and such an amazing man. We were gifted with such a great group of people. In my own personal journey, it was great because I had never created a role prior to Tarzan. . . . It was a huge journey for me. The story that Kala told was very personal to me, and I loved playing her every night. It was wonderful to see the reactions, especially of the mothers who would come up to me and had really been touched. For me it was fulfilling because I knew that my work was reaching out and touching people. But the production as a whole — we didn't get embraced as much as we'd liked to have been embraced, but we loved each other and we loved every second of it, and we had a great time. Question:You've also done TV and film. How does that compare for you with doing stage work?
Dandridge: I love it because I'm a morning person. [Laughs.] It's kind of hard for me getting out of the house in the evening when I'm feeling like I want to wind down. I love that fact that it's a similar craft but it's a completely different medium, and you do have to adjust and do something completely different. I like to stretch myself and push the envelope, so anything that's new or different or not of my daily routine, I am so for. I love getting on a set every day, and even though I've read the script, not knowing what's coming that day — and it being fresh and new every day. It's a different kind of camaraderie that you get with your fellow actors because you're doing new material everyday instead of the same thing every night. So you have less an idea of what's coming, which is more exciting in some ways — it's exciting in different ways.

[Spamalot plays the Shubert Theatre, 225 West 44th Street. For tickets call (212) 239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com. For more information go to www.montypythonsspamalot.com.]

Betty Buckley

BETTY BUCKLEY
For her recent debut at the famed jazz club Birdland, Tony Award winner Betty Buckley said that she poured through her voluminous music collection to choose some of the most beautiful songs she knows. And, what a beautiful repertoire it was: From the atmospheric "Autumn Leaves" to the heartbreaking songs of Antonio Carlos Jobim, Buckley offered an evening of beautiful tunes that were also beautifully acted. It seemed more than appropriate that the former Sunset Boulevard star should include a new tune entitled "Honest Emotion," since she imbues everything she sings with an emotional honesty and intensity that few can match. One of the most haunting songs of the evening was a new addition to Buckley's eclectic repertoire, "Ghost in This House," which was as emotionally powerful as it was gorgeously delivered: Buckley's soprano tones were at their most lovely on this supremely moving selection.

And, while there were no show tunes (an early-evening admission by Buckley that was met with a few sighs), there was plenty of powerhouse singing. Buckley's rangy alto remains a formidable instrument. Especially exciting were full-voiced renditions of "Since I Fell for You" and the Bob Dylan anthem "The Times They Are A Changin'." Because the singing actress is best known for her searing dramatic work in and out of the musical theatre, it's always a welcome reminder just how funny she can be. I always enjoy her gift for comedic gab between songs: Buckley finds humor in her life and the world around her, and it's one of many gifts that completely draws in her audience.

Other highlights of the generous set included a wonderful pairing of Jobim's "Dindi" and "How Insensitive" that had the sold-out crowd completely absorbed in Buckley's sensitive readings; a belty version of the Gershwin classic, "They Can't Take That Away From Me"; and a superb take on the pop hit "Get Here," which concluded Buckley's evening. Tom Waits' "Take It With Me When I Go," Buckley's encore, was another standout.

Those who missed Buckley's fall engagement, fear not. The multitalented actress will bring her acclaimed By Request evening back to Feinstein's at Loews Regency in February 2009.

DIVA TIDBITS
Actress, stand-up comic, producer and talk-show host Rosie O'Donnell will try her hand at reviving the variety show genre. Variety reported earlier this week that "Rosie's Variety Show" will make its debut Nov. 26 at 8 PM ET on NBC. The one-night special will likely precede a weekly O'Donnell variety show that would begin in 2009. Celebrity guests, comedy skits, musical acts and contests will be part of "Rosie's Variety Show," which will air live from Manhattan. O'Donnell will executive produce the show with David Friedman ("Last Comic Standing"). O'Donnell told Variety that the upcoming show is a "a dream come true — old-time variety, live from New York, with a nod to Ed Sullivan, Carol Burnett and memories of Sonny and Cher."

Liz Callaway
photo by Aubrey Reuben

An upcoming evening celebrating the work of composer Burt Bacharach (Promises, Promises) will benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Presented by POZ Magazine, the Bacharach to the Future benefit concert will be held Dec. 1 at New World Stages. Among those scheduled to appear at the 7:30 PM event are Gloria Reuben, Christian Hoff, Gerard Canonico, Michael Rupert, Jason Graae, Liz Callaway, Amanda Baker, Billy Porter, Linda Purl, Julie Reiber, Katie Adams and Matt Walton. Co-producer Kevin Spirtas will host the evening. Bruce Kimmel will direct the Bacharach tribute with musical direction by Alex Rybeck. New World Stages is located in Manhattan at 340 West 50th Street. For tickets, priced $51.50-$251.50, call (646) 871-1730 or visit www.newworldstages.com. A host of Broadway performers will take part in Kickin' It: Broadway Gives Back. Directed and choreographed by Lorin Latarro, the Oct. 13 evening at The Ailey Citigroup Theater will benefit Natasha "Nabba" Steinhagen and help raise awareness for ovarian cancer. The evening, which begins at 7 PM, will boast appearances and/or performances by Cynthia Nixon, Karen Ziemba, Norm Lewis, Richard Blake, Elizabeth Parkinson, John Selya, Noah Racey, Megan Sikora and Jared Grimes as well as cast members from Hair and Movin' Out. The Ailey Citigroup Theater is located 405 West 55th Street at Ninth Avenue. Tickets, priced $40, are available by visiting www.smarttix.com.

Little Women's John Hickok and Aida's Maya Days will co-star in a new production of the Al Tapper musical Sessions — which was seen Off-Broadway at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre in summer 2007 — at Off-Broadway's Algonquin Theater. Directed by Steven Petrillo, performances will begin at the East 24th Street venue Oct. 28. In addition to Hickok and Days, the cast will also feature Al Bundonis, Ken Jennings, Kelli Maguire, Trisha Rapier, Scott Richard Foster, Jason Wooten and Becky Barta. Show times are Wednesday-Friday at 8 PM, Saturday at 2 and 8 PM and Sunday at 3 PM. The Algonquin Theater is located in Manhattan at 123 East 24th Street between Lexington and Park Avenues. Tickets, priced $50 (senior and student tix are priced $20), are available by visiting www.smarttix.com or by calling (212) 868-4444.

And, finally, the track list has been announced for "Patti LuPone at Les Mouches," a digitally restored recording of Patti LuPone's 1980 club act that will arrive in stores on CD Nov. 11 on the Ghostlight Records label. The complete track listing for the eagerly awaited disc follows: Intro, "Latin from Manhattan"/"I Got Rhythm," "I've Got Them Feelin' Too Good Today Blues," "Love for Sale," "Not While I'm Around"/"Come Rain or Come Shine," "Meadowlark," "Squeeze Me," "Heaven Is a Disco," "Downtown," "Street of Dreams," "Because the Night," "Everything I Am," "Mr. Tambourine Man," "Rainbow High," "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina," "Look to the Rainbow," "Superman (I Wish I Could Fly)," "It Goes Like It Goes," Thank yous/"I've Got Them Feelin' Too Good Today Blues (Reprise)" and "Goodnight Sweetheart." For more information visit www.sh-k-boom.com or www.ghostlightrecords.com.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.